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  • It's time to ban the banned words list

    The annual list of banned words was published on New Year’s Eve by Lake Superior State University.  This year’s no-no’s range from the generic superlative epithet awesome to the latest high-tech prefix, any gadget beginning with i-.  The list would put an end to truthiness, a word that so many people find apt that it was honored with word-of-the-year awards two years running.  To be banished too are such marketing clichés as ask your doctor (if the latest pill from Merck will cure you) and now playing in theaters (as opposed to “now on iPods everywhere”?).  Combined celebrity names like TomKat and Brangelina will henceforth be divorced.  Gitmo, the nickname of the American military stockade at Guantanemo Bay, will be summarily executed.  And all references to undocumented aliens are to be deported. 

    Lake Superior U. boasts programs in the management of business, wildlife, and fisheries, but its Public Relations Office began a list of words it considers overused, misused, and generally useless – words like boast itself – back in 1975, and it’s fair to say that the school is better known for its efforts to manage English than for its fully-accredited programs in fire science, exercise science, or office administration, names that a skeptical reader might argue were perhaps a tad on the euphemistic side.     

    While many of us look to the new year as a time to resolve to do better – to lose weight or stop smoking, to recycle, fight global warming, and exercise regularly – Lake Superior challenges us to improve our lives by using fewer words.   

    No Trappist could have said it better.  But cutting down on our words, like cutting calories, turns out to be easier said than done.  The English vocabulary has about half a million words, so any proposal to banish ten overused words or phrases each year is just a drop in the bucket, to coin a phrase.  Besides, overuse, misuse, and necessity, the three criteria for banishing words, are all in the eye – or the ear – of the beholder.  In 2002 LSSU wanted to banish 9-11 as an “over-used . . . [and] annoying abbreviation.”  No one agreed, and no one listened: it would be like calling July Fourth an irreverent shortening of “the fourth of July.”  

    Then there’s misuse.  My idea of misuse may not be yours.  Some people don’t like very unique because unique means ‘one of a kind’ and can’t be quantified: something’s either one of a kind, they insist, or it’s not.  But language isn’t always literal.  If it were, light a pipe would mean setting fire to the wood, not the tobacco, and the weekly Journal of the American Medical Association would have to appear more often, since journal means ‘daily.’  Fortunately, most people aren’t so fussy, but Lake Superior banned very unique in 2002 for a truly unique reason: they found it not wrong, but redundant.  Redundant means saying something more than once.  Not to be overly literal, but very unique is only redundant if you say it twice.   

    But I'm never surprised when critics of other people's language are inconsistent or make their own mistakes.  It's in the nature of language to vary, and it's normal for performance errors to creep into even the most careful speech and writing.  In 1997, an LSSU English prof added down time to her school's list of banned substances, arguing, “It may be alright when applied to computers, but not humans.”  Despite the fact that my spell checker didn’t blink when I typed alright, I know a lot of English professors who would insist that all right is actually two words.  I also think that my esteemed colleague protests too much: so far as complaining about down time is concerned, I say give it a rest.  

    As to the question of usefulness, words are created because someone thinks they’re useful.  They’re adopted if others agree.  And they’re abandoned not because someone puts them on a do-not-use list, but when they’re no longer needed.  The annual banned words contest is nothing more than a publicity stunt, a marketing ploy no better than “ask your doctor if crystal meth is right for you.”   For that reason alone I think it’s time to ban the banned words list.    

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